Jefferson City – The ACLU of Missouri applauds the Missouri Legislature for its work in allocating $3.6 million in funding to the Missouri Public Defender System in this year’s budget. House Bill 12 now heads to Governor Parson’s desk for final approval. The additional funding for 53 new public defenders is a long overdue step toward meeting the state’s Sixth Amendment obligations to provide an attorney for all Missourians who cannot afford one and, according to public defender officials, will end the unconstitutional use of waiting lists.
In 2017, after decades of Missouri’s Public Defender System being underfunded, understaffed, and overworked the national ACLU and ACLU of Missouri along with MacArthur Justice Center, and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe filed a groundbreaking lawsuit citing the state's failure to provide adequate legal representation to tens of thousands every year. After the original case was settled, the advocates filed a second class-action case in 2019 targeting the State’s use of waiting lists to address its lack of sufficient resources. Individuals who were placed on the waiting lists faced significant delays before receiving the representation to which they are entitled. Many were forced to wait for months in jail before a public defender was available to help them contest a charge or request bail. In February, a Missouri judge found that holding those charged with crimes on waiting lists almost certainly violates both the state and federal Constitutions, but withheld a formal ruling to provide the legislature and the governor an opportunity to provide adequate funding to address the issue.
For decades, the Missouri Bar, state officials, judges, and advocates have warned that Missouri is systematically violating the constitutional right to counsel by grossly underfunding the public defender program. The use of waiting lists represent a new low point. In some cases, it took more than a year for individuals to even speak to a defense attorney. The situation throughout Missouri is dire. At times last year there were more than 2,500 individuals waiting for representation, many held pre-trial detention. For these individuals, our justice system failed- putting them at risk of losing their jobs, homes, families and even their lives due to Covid-19. Public defender officials told the legislature that 53 additional attorneys would allow them to eliminate waiting lists.
Friday’s funding approval marks a critical step toward improving legal representation across the state for low-income Missourians. However, the ball is firmly in Governor Parson’s court. The governor must not disturb this critical funding when he signs the budget or withhold appropriated funds from the program during the fiscal year. Previously, Governor Jay Nixon withheld appropriated funding from the Missouri Public Defender System, leading to further systemic violations of the right to counsel for low-income defendants across the state.
Sara Baker, Legislative and Policy Director for the ACLU of Missouri, affirmed, “We are pleased to see the body come together in historic fashion to protect all Missourians’ right to timely and competent counsel no matter their income status. The injustice we have seen due to decades of underfunding by our elected officials has been a stain on our state's criminal legal system and legislature.”
Tony Rothert, ACLU of Missouri Legal Director added, “The rights to representation and a speedy trial when the government tries to take away your freedom are fundamental to the concept of liberty that makes our country different. The legislature’s action does not change the reality that today the right of Missourians to an attorney is routinely ignored, but the promised elimination of wait lists is the first real step in decades to providing equitable justice for Missourians.”